Larry Watts, a mended heart with help from above…
Larry Watts was not alone when his heart stopped on that June day in 2018 while running a half-marathon near Bend, Ore.
He was surrounded by runners, of course, but the retired Redding dentist firmly believes God was the ultimate race director that day. He has no other explanation for the amazing chain of events that unfolded, and he’s not looking for one.
Watts had registered for the race with his daughter, Mary Beth, as part of what had become an annual tradition. He would run the Pacific Crest Endurance Sports Festival half-marathon in June to serve as a practice for the Disneyland half-marathon in September.
Watts says he remembers getting to the start line for the 13.1-mile race, but the rest is a blur. That’s because he suffered a heart attack at the Mile 4 mark and collapsed, unconscious and without a pulse.
That’s when the miracles started happening. Karen Christopherson, a retired nuclear medicine technologist, was walking the race and had earlier noticed that Watts appeared distressed when he passed her. She was the first to come upon Watts; she checked for a pulse and immediately started chest compressions.
Tana was next on the scene and asked how she could help. Get help, Christopherson said, so Tana started screaming while dialing 911. Tana squeezed Watts’s finger, just above his wedding band, and yelled, “Don’t you dare! You have someone waiting for you.”
A pair of nearby neurosurgeons, David Antesana and Paul Ash, heard the yelling and rushed to the scene and took over the CPR duties. They knew full well the importance of chest compressions for maintaining brain function.
Antesana strapped his Apple watch onto Watts’ wrist – so Ash could monitor the vital signs – while continuing his very aggressive chest compressions. Peggy Stevens, a nurse, arrived and announced, “I’m a nurse and I teach CPR, what can I do?” Antesana had her maintain Watts’ airway, which she did until paramedics from Sunriver Fire and Rescue arrived.
A shock from a defibrillator restarted Watts’ heart (after a total of 10 minutes of CPR) and he was taken to the Sunriver airport and airlifted to St. Charles Medical Center in Bend. Watts awoke to the voice of Dr. Saurabh Gupta, who informed his incredulous patient that Watts had collapsed during the race and now had two stents in his heart.
The doctor commented to Watts’ wife, Teresa, “You’re fortunate I was here. I’m only here (in Bend) four to six weekends of the year.” Teresa’s reply: “No, God had you here for my husband.”
As he was preparing to be discharged from the hospital in Bend, Teresa mentioned to a nurse that it appeared her husband’s days of running half-marathons were over. Not necessarily, the nurse replied, provided he follows his doctor’s orders.
Which is precisely what Watts did. He put his busy dental practice on hold until he was back on his feet and then juggled dentistry and 36 sessions of cardiac rehabilitation through Mercy Medical Center. He also switched to a more heart-healthy diet.
His goal? Restore his health and return to complete the Pacific Crest half-marathon in 2019. Watts was careful and methodical, paying close attention to his heart and adopting Jeff Galloway’s Run-Walk-Run methods.
Mission accomplished. Watts returned to Sunriver and completed the half-marathon with his son, James, and his future daughter-in-law, Danielle. There to offer encouragement and congratulations were Christopherson, the first to administer CPR the year prior, neurosurgeons Antesana and Ash, and close friends Mike Brink and Doug Christ.
“It was a little scary,” Watts admits, but says his careful preparation gave him the confidence to run again. “It’s definitely pretty remarkable,” says his cardiologist, Dr. Teresa Tioran, who gave Watts the green light to resume. “This should be inspirational for other patients. With dedication to taking the medicines, eating right, getting enough sleep, the cardiac rehab – it shows that the heart can recover completely.” Brink, a Palo Cedro-based veterinarian and a former patient of Watts’, says it was emotional and exciting to see Watts cross the finish line. “It really is a blessing. He and I give the glory to God.”
James Watts likens it to “a story you would hear in a movie, but to be able to experience it with my own father is just an incredible memory. It’s something that will inspire me for the rest of my life.”
“He was supposed to be here, that’s all there is to it,” says Tammy Jones, a hygienist who has worked with Watts for more than 40 years.
Watts, 70, says he started running while in dental school at Georgetown University but was advised to stop after breaking a leg while skydiving in 1976, so he switched to bicycling. In 2004, he accepted his niece’s challenge to run the Portland Marathon and completed it after four months of training. He had been running regularly for 15 years when the heart attack struck.
A native of Fullerton, Watts met his future wife when they both worked at Disneyland. He received a degree in biology at UC Irvine and set up a dental practice in Escondido. A 1978 camping vacation at Whiskeytown Lake introduced him to the North State and the young couple soon made Redding their home. In addition to James and Mary Beth, they have a son, Jonathan.
Watts wrapped up 43 years of dentistry in November and turned his practice over to William Trevor, the son of longtime Redding pulmonologist Everett Trevor. Watts says he’s looking forward to continuing his involvement with Pathway Church (formerly Neighborhood Church), spending time with his grandchildren and pursuing Kokanee salmon on Whiskeytown Lake.
And he’ll continue to run, drawing inspiration from an inscription on the start/finish line sign at the Sunriver half-marathon course: It’s not finishing that matters; it’s having the courage to start. Watts also cites Joshua 1:9: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”